The Eurovision Song Contest finale last Saturday sparked controversy regarding the alleged acts of cultural appropriation committed by the winner. I argue that in its focus on signs of Japanese culture and discourse of 'yellowface,' and its blind spot for both representations of American culture and masculinity, the online reception of this event is very revealing with respect to the politics of representation of our time.
Eurovision Lesson I: Japanese culture is not your toy
Netta Barzilai, a voluptuous and fun-loving Israeli singer who vaguely resembles Björk and engages in some sort of chicken dance, was the winner of last week’s Eurovision Song Contest finale. She performed the catchy song ‘Toy’, inspired by the #Metoo movement. Despite its ‘empowering’ message, not everyone was satisfied with this outcome. Barzilai made ample use of Chinese and Japanese imagery and props like Maneki Neko cats and, to add insult to injury, she wore her hair in two buns and sported a Japanese-style dress. Unsurprisingly, she is now being accused of cultural appropriation and ‘yellowface’.
Eurovision is an ultimate example of camp, as defined by Susan Sontag. Camp is a “mode of aestheticism… one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon” (1966). It is about artifice, about stylization. It downplays content and is apolitical. It entails a love of exaggeration and theatricality: “[t]o perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role” (Ibid.).
Once Eurovision was an occasion and even free space for many to reduce their own national culture to a stereotype and laugh about it. Under the influence of globalization, the last decades many an artist started looking across the borders and borrowing (appropriating if you will) djembés, Indian headdress, Swedish producers, and Balkan beats. Under the current cultural sensibility (I am tempted to say sensitivity), this has now abruptly been called to a halt: stay within the borders of your own country, seems to be the motto.
This is a far cry from the liberating potential of practices of pastiche and collage as celebrated by postmodern theories in the 1980s and ‘90s. Arthur Danto and Hans Belting famously announced the End of Art, which really meant the end of the Grand Narrative of art. Inspired by Hegel’s end of history thesis, they claimed that art after the end of art has lost its overarching historical and narrative framework: from then on, historical and geographical styles were up for grabs, allowing for all kinds of collage and remix: “the artist is given free run of the museum and organizes out of its resources exhibitions of objects that have no historical or formal connection to one another other than what the artist provides” (Danto 1997).
It would be interesting to put a pin in the term ‘yellow-face’ and see what Barzilai was aiming for with this outfit: could it be a non-offensive celebration of, or hommage to Japanese culture?
Even if we are not fully prepared to view Eurovision entries along the same lines, it would be a good idea to develop a more fine-tuned discourse for discussing such borrowing practices. One place to look for such an instrument would be intertexuality in literary theory or adaptation theories in film studies. Julie Sanders (2005), for instance, distinguishes between adaptation and appropriation, and identifies all kinds of grey shades in-between, from a simple repetition in another medium to an appropriation of canonical texts with the intent of critique or political commentary. Aggressive or hostile appropriation is just one of many options. It would be interesting to put a pin in the term ‘yellow-face’ and see what Barzilai was aiming for with this outfit: could it be a non-offensive celebration of, or hommage to Japanese culture?
Of course it should be factored in that this performer is Israeli and celebrates ‘difference’ without commenting on topics of the apartheid state and Israeli colonialism, which will undoubtedly aggravate the critical reception of this song. Yet without posing the question of intent, today the reigning adage seems to be stuck at ‘hands off!’: citation of the signs of Japanese or Chinese cultures is very quickly read as an act of hostile appropriation. Forget about pastiche, remix, collage, or bricolage. Stop the careless mixing and matching of styles: if you’re not from there, it is not for you to refer to. I am tempted to see a new cultural essentialism in this development.
All of this, by the way, does not seem to apply to the Dutch entry: ‘Outlaw in ‘em’ by Waylon. No one seems to be too concerned about the way that our national pride and joy puts on a fake American accent and a cowboy hat, and sings about whiskey and outlaws, surrounded by crumping, muscular black musicians. Here is Waylon stringing American clichés together like there’s no tomorrow:
Everybody's got a little outlaw in 'em
Chrome piece hidin' in their blacked out denim
Heartbeat beatin' to a rock 'n' roll rhythm, yeah
Everybody's got a couple scarred up knuckles
Blood on their boots and their back-off buckle
Diamondback rattle with the quick strike venom
Everybody's got a little outlaw in 'em (Hmm)
How does Waylon preclude allegations of cultural appropriation? Does the difference reside in the ‘fact’ that the Chinese and Japanese cultures are ‘marginalized’ whereas the US is in power? Culturally (and economically) speaking, this argument does not really hold, considering the enormous influence of both countries. Historically, of course, there has been a history of offensive stereotyping of Asian characters that is reflective of power disbalances (think of the outrageously racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Blake Edwards' classic film 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany's), but the argument against belittling and insulting representations does not have to be extended to representation tout court, as I cannot see how Barzilai is ridiculizing Japanese culture with her campy act.
Eurovision Lesson II: Boys will be stupid boys
Another thing that no one seems to be concerned about, is the tenor of the song which, I think, should rather be considered problematic in further excavating the gap between the sexes, than being disputable in terms of a cultural politics of representation. It does not become clear what the ‘boy’ to which Barzilai addresses her song has done wrong, but ‘immature’ and ‘stupid’ seem to be keywords here.
Look at me, I'm a beautiful creature
I don't care about your modern-time preachers
Welcome boys, too much noise, I will teach ya
Pam pam pa hoo, prram pam pa hoo
Hey, I think you forgot how to play
My teddy bear's running away
The Barbie got somethin' to say, hey, hey, hey
Hey! My “Simon says”
I'm taking my Pikachu home
You're stupid just like your smartphone
This stupid boy needs to be taught a lesson. With a wink and typical postfeminist irony, an appeal is made to a dominant cultural tendency: men are culturally programmed to try and objectify women, most of them have never reached mental maturity, and they need to be educated.... by women, superior creatures that we are. This sentiment is so widespread by now that it does not even seem to be in need of explanation, something that Barzilai therefore doesn’t have to try. It’s just a fun song about #MeToo, after all. She does elucidate in an interview, however, that
“[t]he song has an important message — the awakening of female power and social justice, wrapped in a colorful, happy vibe. … I think the song is #MeToo, but it’s an empowerment song for everybody, and everybody can find themselves in it.”
Despite, or maybe because of this innocent veneer, all this fits in perfectly with recent developments of shaming and blaming, policing and disciplining male sexuality online. One can think of the hilarity ensuing around Instagram Husbands and Fuckbois, (the former being willingly emasculated, the latter overly testosteron-infused), and websites like Tinder Nightmare on Instagram, where ‘digilantes’ report and chastise unwholesome Tinder behaviors. These tendencies go largely unexamined.
Wonder Woman don’t you ever forget
You’re divine and he’s about to regret
In an opportune appropriation of the #MeToo movement, Barzilai makes the simplistically 'empowering' statement that women, in fact, are not toys. They are “divine”, and boys are “stupid”. Such seemingly innocent and mocking ‘revenge’ lines have become pervasive in culture to the point that they go by unnoticed. I think the widening gap between boys and girls, as hunter vs. no-longer-prey, that informs this contagious and cheerful song is, in the final instance, more alarming than the dress-up game that this performer plays.
Of course I would not underplay the importance of going against sexual harrassment and gender inequality, but it is the all-too-ready generalization that concerns me here. The reason that no one takes offense, I suspect, is that men are still a priori viewed as the ones in power, and often as predators, which makes it appropriate to belittle them over and over in a humoristic fashion (this mocking tendency functions as a breeding ground for the manosphere and other anti-feminist movements). Along similar lines, I’m tempted to reason, appropriating American culture seems to be less of an issue, whereas the use of signs and imagery from Asian culture must be disciplined--regardless of context or intent.
Danto, Arthur. After the End of Art. Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton UP, 1996.
Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.
Sontag, Susan. "Notes on Camp." Against Interpretation. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.